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AUGUST 9, 1999: 

*1/2 Various Artists WE WILL FOLLOW: A TRIBUTE TO U2 (Cleopatra)

This tribute wants to immortalize or stick a fork in the Dublin lads but ends up just making you pity them. Anthemic guitar ballads like "With or Without You" and "Pride" achieve a majestic grandeur in their original forms, but when channeled by Erasure clones Heaven 17 and industrial punk outfit Razed in Black, respectively, they come off as pencil-necked and limp. Plenty of good bands have been influenced by Bono and the boys, and none of them is included here. Instead of Radiohead and Smashing Pumpkins we get . . . Tiffany? The snarky-voiced Britney precursor tries to play Madonna to Front Line Assembly's Massive Attack on an industrial techno "New Year's Day," but don't expect any windows to steam. On this and nearly every other track, the questing spirit and arch sense of humor that make U2 matter are obscured in a vaguely '80s synth fog. The singers try to work in something snide and sexy but mostly sound lost, and they miss the romantic sincerity that is the key to the U2 kingdom. There's a fashionably pretty "October" by Rosetta Stone that feels like Moby in mellow mode, but this is decidedly subpar stuff even by today's incredibly low tribute-album standards.

-- Joe Manera


** Drain STH FREAKS OF NATURE (Mercury)

Tougher and blacker than their debut, Horror Wrestling, Drain STH's second CD of actressy rock is a wonderful illusion, glam at its wildest. Something like a blend of Alice in Chains' guitar riffs and funkadelic beats, the CD's 11 tracks give hardly a clue that Sweden's best boy-rock band is made up of four women. It takes some acting ability for any band from a non-English-speaking nation to put themselves into American rock, but the role-playing music of Martina Axen, Flavia Canel, Anna Kjellberg, and Maria Sjöholm never quits. Drain STH sure aren't boys -- the liner photos don't lie -- but noise, spleen and joy tracks like "Alive," "Leech" and "Black" cry out, full of rebellious relish, kid stomp so pure you can taste its grin. (Gangsta funky, too, in "Simon Says," a slap-your-hip party song.) And in case you missed the band's glam point, there are plenty of gothic touches, such as Sjöholm's husky vocal in "I Wish" and the sultry orchestration and drama music in "Right Through You."

-- Michael Freedberg


**1/2 G. Love and Special Sauce PHILADELPHONIC (550 Music)

When drastic musical reinvention is necessary for guys like Moby and Beck to keep making a dent, you've gotta wonder what will become of G. Love, a musician whose sound changes with each album, but not enough to warrant a cheek pinch and a "My how you've grown!" If Philadelphonic, the third release by G. Love and Special Sauce since their head-turning homonymous debut, is any indication, he'll keep kickin' his laid-back, bluesy funk trip -- screw the politics of hype. And after two albums of so-so, this time the attitude works.

We've got a bona fide head bobber here with several standouts, including a "Cold Beverage"-caliber catchy number called "Do It for Free," and "Kick Drum," a sweet-sounding tune that turns out to be raunchy. The slow, jazzy rap "Roaches" is followed by "Rodeo Clowns," which wins the best-composition award though Love didn't write it. Conversely, "Rock and Roll" is a good groove but comes off cheesy with a not-as-effective Sublime-style series of shout-outs. Add an unexceptional a cappella closer and a 1:20-minute waste of space called "Thank You" and the final score is still more hits than misses. It's no G. Love and Special Sauce, but at least they're back on the right track.

-- Robin A. Rothman


* Genius/GZA BENEATH THE SURFACE (MCA)

In 1995, no rapper could match the Wu-Tang Clan's Genius/GZA: Liquid Swords, his second album, featured some of the heaviest, most mysterious hip-hop ever recorded. Four years later, after an unimpressive showing on 1997's Wu-Tang Forever, the Genius is ready for his comeback. Only, times have changed. In an era of upbeat, playfully innovative hip-hop, his return has been about as eagerly awaited as a dark cloud on a sunny day. There are a few rays of light on Beneath the Surface: "Breaker, Breaker" sets the Genius's stern delivery against synthesized strings and a bizarre CB-radio chorus by the RZA; the title track features a hypnotic rhyme from GZA protégé Killah Priest. But too many of the Genius's rhymes are clunky, too many of the beats are boring, and no one seems to be having any fun. The most depressing track might be the magazine-industry shout-out "Publicity," a new version of his overrated 1995 music-biz shout-out "Labels," which was itself a new version of his excellent verse from the Wu-Tang Clan's 1993 debut single, "Protect Ya Neck." The Genius's fall from grace is as methodical as his rhyme style.

-- Kelefa Sanneh


**** Various Artists RETURN OF THE GRIEVOUS ANGEL: A TRIBUTE TO GRAM PARSONS (Almo Sounds)

If the alterna-country/No Depression movement had a founding father, it was Parsons, the renegade country rocker whose concept of a "Cosmic American Music" was all about dressing rock-and-roll attitude up in country duds (as opposed to Nashville "Outlaws" like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, who dressed their country in rock-and-roll attitude). The editors of No Depression even threw an old Parsons tune ("In My Hour of Darkness") onto the end of Exposed Roots: The Best of Alt.Country (K-Tel), their new two-disc comp of tracks by 22 contemporary roots-rockers (plus Johnny Cash), as if it were really all that necessary at this point for them to claim Gram as their own. So it wouldn't have been hard to find 13 alterna-country faves to cover Parsons's tunes for a tribute disc.

But Return of the Grievous Angel does the Parsons legacy a favor by opening his songbook up to a broader spectrum of interpreters. Some of No Depression's better usual suspects -- the Mavericks, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Wilco, Whiskeytown, Gillian Welch, and Victoria Williams with hubby Mark Olson in the Rolling Creekdippers -- show up to do justice and a bit more to forgotten country-rock nuggets like "Hickory Wind" and "Hot Burrito #1." Yet what makes Return of the Grievous Angel an exceptional album, rather than just a solid exercise in genre solidarity, are unexpected treats like the Pretenders (featuring Chrissie Hynde dueting with Emmylou Harris) offering a soulful rendition of "She," Evan Dando & Juliana Hatfield's plaintive reading of "$1,000 Wedding," and Beck's twangy take on "Sin City" (again featuring Emmylou's vocals). And then there's Cowboy Junkies, whose radical reworking of "Oooh Las Vegas" bleeds all of Parson's self-deprecating humor out of the original and turns what was once a galloping ode to lost weekends into a gorgeous, feedback-laced lament, proving once again that they've always been best as a cover band.

-- Matt Ashare


*** Self BREAKFAST WITH GIRLS (Spongebath/Zoo/DreamWorks)

Mixtures of hip-hop and rock and roll can be pretty deadly -- most efforts are less than the sum of their parts, too self-conscious for their own good. Murfreesboro (Tennessee) native Matt Mahaffey, who records with friends under the name Self, is the rare exception to this rule. A polyglot who's never overly reverent toward the various genres he raids for inspiration, Mahaffey trusts his sonic blender to turn out tasty confections. Self songs are melody- rather than riff-driven, and instead of funk-rock workouts, most of Breakfast with Girls floats around the border between hummable and stupefyingly memorable. Although there's nothing spontaneous here -- it's hard to be off-the-cuff when you're overdubbing most of the parts yourself -- the craft comes off as deliberate, not overthought (or overproduced). Mahaffey's figured out that it's not enough just to cut and paste together alterna-guitars, breakbeats, and quirky toy piano -- you have to mix 'em up until you can't recognize them anymore.

-- Ben Auburn


**1/2 The Evil Tambourines LIBRARY NATION (Sub Pop)

Conceived by a Seattle duo so old-school they're probably still paying late fees on the classic hip-hopumentary Beat Street, the Evil Tambourines' freshman disc, Library Nation, opens up shop somewhere between Sugar Hill and Beat Happening's Black Candy. As multi-instrumentalist Andy Poehlman marshals Chic-ist roller-skating jams and cop-show beats with the kick of sharp cheese, MC Tobias Flowers trips from break-up-song musings to freak-freak-y'all crowd control with mellow aplomb. And Al Larsen (late of international-pop-underground ambassadors Some Velvet Sidewalk) displays deft-not-showy playground tactics behind the boards, even though -- shades of Puffy -- he's one of those producers who can't leave the mike alone, parsing Minor Threat's "Straight Edge" (on "The Evil Tambourines Theme Song") in a counting-the-ceiling-tiles cadence that suggests John S. Hall or Emo Phillips. The voices of Larsen and Flowers don't really clash, but they seldom complement or challenge each other either, so Library Nation's vision -- lo-fi turned supa-dupa fly -- remains more or less theoretical: never limp Bisquick, but seldom as ideal as pie à la mode. The disc works best when both sides of the equation stand back, as when "Pathways" hands off to Lois Maffeo, who's already cameo'd on enough of Dub Narcotic's good-natured, groove-challenged whitey-funk cuts to qualify as the indie-rock Vinia Mojica. Here, she sings about sunsets in a honeyed voice that glows like one, making the potholes in this band's velvet sidewalk bloom with De La daisies.

-- Alex Pappademas


**1/2 H20 F.T.T.W. (Epitaph)

The first eight hooky tracks on H20's F.T.T.W. are the punk equivalent of a six-hour therapy session -- it doesn't matter that your girlfriend took off, you can't pay the rent, and there are a lot of people who want to kick your ass, because you've got a sensitive-bad-ass band from NYC waiting with open arms to give you a hardcore hug. Of course, all that emotional bloodletting is a little draining, so you'd rather take a nap than listen to the disc's next 10 tracks. Said tracks just buzz by in tight, heartfelt bursts -- chants echo, old-school hardcore riffs snap, and tiny guitar melodies squiggle -- but you're already sawing wood. Which is a shame, because taken in small jolts of two or three tracks at a time, F.T.T.W. is good medicine.

-- Lorne Behrman


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